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4th Mar 2024

EU Commission at a loss over latest snub from Tunisia

  • Tunisia's president Kais Saied (2nd from right) has snubbed the European Commission over a migrant-busting agreement signed in July (Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service)
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The European Commission was largely silent on Tuesday (3 October) about the latest snub from Tunis over a July agreement to prevent people embarking boats from the north African state in their efforts to reach Italian shores.

When pressed, European Commission vice-president Vera Jourova skirted questions in Strasbourg and instead made general statements.

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"I think that the EU is very consistent in whatever we are doing. We are always promoting human rights in every system," she told reporters.

A commission spokesperson, in an email, said they are in contact with Tunisian authorities to implement the stalled agreement, a so-called memorandum of understanding, which came with a €1bn pledge to inject into Tunisia's struggling economy.

It also came with €127m to shore up Tunisia border defences to prevent people from fleeing on boats to cross the Mediterranean primarily towards Italy.

But on Monday, Tunisia's autocrat president Kais Saied rejected that European Commission offer of €127m.

He said "it conflicts with the memorandum of understanding signed in July." He has also in the past declared Tunisia will not become Europe's border police.

It is the third time the EU has been snubbed by Tunisia since the European Commission signed the agreement with Saied, alongside the prime ministers of Italy and the Netherlands.

In mid-September, Tunisia refused to welcome a delegation of MEPs tasked to probe the agreement. And last week, it cancelled another planned visit by senior European Commission officials.

The European Commission, also on Tuesday, did not respond when pressed on whether the planned visit has since been rescheduled.

But the move by Saied is likely a blow to an agreement that has been described as incomprehensible by the EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell.

It is also embarrassment for European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who wants to use the agreement with Tunisia as a template for other similar deals in the future.

The commission president hails from the centre-right European People's Party (EPP). Its chair, fellow German MEP Manfred Weber, announced his desire for parallel deals with Algeria and Egypt.

Speaking to reporters in Strasbourg, Weber is also demanding German chancellor Olaf Scholz and French president Emmanuel Macron speak out in support of the Tunisia agreement.

"Until now, we don't have a full confirmation from Paris and Berlin on this," he said.

The view is not shared by the other political groupings. Among them are the Socialists & Democrts (S&D).

"We don't need these kind of agreements with dictators, with authoritarian regimes," said Pedro Marques, S&D's vice-chair from Portugal.

Marques instead pressed for a permanent European led search-and-rescue mission at sea, as well as safe and legal pathways for migration.

NGOs operating at sea have saved thousands from drowning, but still only account for under 10 percent of all those rescued.

The vast majority are instead picked up by the Italian coastguard and others, with some 133,000 landing in Italy so far this year.

In total, NGOs rescue boats flying the German flag landed just under 3,000, according to the Milan-based Italian Institute for International Political Studies, a think tank.

Italy also gives far less protection to refugees than Germany, and had fewer applications for asylum in 2022 than Austria.

EU commission praises autocrat Tunisia for sea rescues

The European Commission has evoked sea rescues carried out by the Tunisian coast guard as evidence that a recent controversial deal with Tunis is helping migrants and others fleeing the country.

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